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Let's get passionate about oil pastels

Artwork by Kat Bell inspired by my Aboriginal culture and heritage, created using oil pastels.

I love oil pastels. They’re a great medium to work with. They give me a broad range of colours to create vibrant artworks and I have never felt overwhelmed by them, unlike some other mediums. I’ve been using oil pastels for a few years now and I find they’re a really easy medium to create with, whether it’s portraits, still life’s or landscapes they are really quite giving. My favourite things to create with pastels, however, are my Aboriginal inspired portraits. Oil pastels provide a great range of vibrant colours that can be easily blended and applied quickly and easily over large surfaces. My portrait pieces tend to be quite large scale, ranging from 600/900mm to 2M x 1.02m. The time to work these large pieces is lengthy and so it’s important to be able to work with materials/mediums that make the job a lot more fulfilling and less taxing on the old body.

This is the start of my journey in sharing my experiences with oil pastels with you. Over the coming months I’m hoping to be able to really showcase the beauty of oil pastels and what you can do with them.

Don’t go for cheap and nasty – otherwise you might as well be using crayons

If you’re new to oil pastels I would suggest getting the best quality oil pastels you can afford to start you off and a large set so that you have plenty of colours to experience/explore your creativity with. I find it’s really valuable to have more options than less. This doesn’t mean forking out a huge amount of money only to find that oil pastels are not for you. It’s just that I believe you will have a more enjoyable first result and experience from using good quality pastels.

Many people who have used poor quality pastels the first time round have been turned off by oil pastels, but if they were fortunate to rediscover oil pastels, they found they loved them, when using better quality pastels. Cheap oil pastels don’t blend as well together as good quality pastels, and more than often they have a look and feel like kids crayons. So if you truly want to get a good experience and result from oil pastels invest in good quality products.

My favourites at the moment are my set of 36 Derwent Academy oil pastels. This pack has a great selection of vibrant colours that are soft and easy to blend together, and obviously having a choice of 36 colours means I have a wide range of colours to work with. This is perfect for my style and approach to pastel drawing.

They’re a great medium for beginners

My experience has been that oil pastels are quite easy to work with quickly. You can create something over a large surface in a small amount of time and have a great end result. Also, there is something really quite pleasant about blending colours together and seeing how well they work together, particularly when you’re making a piece that is full of vibrant colours. With my own style of art, oil pastels enable me to apply my contemporary take on Aboriginal dot painting and line design quite quickly and easily. It really lends itself to my style quite well.

Further to this, I tend to purchase pastel ready paper - TEX Mi-Tientes sheets. These sheets come prepared with a great textured surface that is perfect for pastels. You need a rough surface for using pastels, so if you can’t afford the more expensive pre-prepared sheets, my suggestion is to prep a quality artist paper or card paper with clear gesso or gel medium (clear gesso gives a grittier texture, so this would be my preference).

Another option I’m experimenting with at the moment is some home made chalk/gesso paint. I have quite a bit of cheap chalk (from the kids school days) lying around, which I crush up and mix in with acrylic or cheaper brand gesso paint. This gives the surface quite a bit of grittiness which is what you’re looking for when applying oil pastels. It’s a simple case of needing your medium to stick to the surface. A smooth surface just isn’t going to work.

As far as paper or surfaces, oil pastels work on a variety of papers. I’m actually experimenting with Quill grey chipboard (650gsm), prepped with gesso or my homemade chalk gesso. I’ll let you know how this goes.

Really you can use any paper to work with, but I have found that a thick paper or card is the best to work with oil pastels. Oil pastels can seep oil through the paper and can be quite difficult to work with in terms of making big bold marks. As mentioned earlier I use a heavier card paper that is specifically prepped for pastels. The Canson Mi-Tientes pastels papers are great to use and come in a variety of colours, so you can really create some great artworks on these. They are a great starting paper for anyone just starting out with pastels.

You’re going to feel like a kid again – these things are messy

So, you’re going to need to protect your surfaces and surrounds. This stuff does get messy, and it’s hard to get off things. I would suggest putting some paper or a table cloth down to cover your work surface before you start. It’s also good to have paper towel or a cloth on hand. This way you can wipe your hands and the tips of your pastels as you work, keeping you and your pastels clean. You may also want to use gloves if you don’t want to get pastels on your hands/fingers. Also, don’t wear your best outfits, oil pastels will get on your clothes.

Your pastels are not the same as working with paint or pencils Oil pastels are quite different to working with paints or pencils. It will take some practice to get use to them and how they can work for you. Like any art-form or medium, don’t expect to create something brilliant and out of this world the first-time round - If you do, well done to you. Take the time to get to know them and experiment with them. Blend them together and play with them, to find out what works for you.

Most people will recommend tackling a still life for your first-time using pastels. I’m going to suggest you start your journey with something less intimidating and maybe even more abstract in nature. I’d go for a cubism type portrait that gives you the opportunity to explore with shapes and colours and eases you into blending. But this is just me. Whatever you choose to start your oil pastel journey with, just take the time to experiment and understand how oil pastels work, how they react to your marks on the surface and how the colours blend together.

Oil pastels are truly worth giving a go, if you choose the right materials to work with. So, take the leap and start your oil pastel adventure today.

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